ZHANGJIAKOU, China (AP) — Still groggy from surgery, American freestyle halfpipe skier Carly Margulies glanced down at her left knee.
Doctor's orders — a simple visual test to tell her the severity after that December surgery. If the knee brace was on, it meant the meniscus had to be repaired and any thoughts of the Beijing Olympics were done. But if the brace was not there, it was a positive sign.
“I think I teared up with it,” Margulies said.
She’s no stranger to knee surgeries. In all, Margulies has undergone seven procedures to fix ACL tears, damaged meniscus and even one to fill existing holes in her knee. But this latest surgery, the one that landed her on the operating table two months before the Winter Games, had her pondering a possibility she rarely contemplated: This could be it.
“In that moment, I was like: “OK, I’m over this. I don’t want to get hurt again. I'm quitting,'” said the 24-year-old from Mammoth Lakes, California, who will take part in halfpipe qualifying Thursday.
But that was simply the looming seventh procedure talking.
Funny story on how Margulies came to be a freestyle skier. She was in a Mammoth ski physical education program, where elementary-aged kids were encouraged to explore the mountain. Maybe not so much the park-and-pipe area. She was too little at the time.
Of course, she was curious.
So, Margulies would ride Chair 6 to the top of the mountain — the one that went over the terrain park — and “accidentally” drop her ski pole into the park. Then, she would go to retrieve it. She'd have to hit the little jumps and rails on her way down — no other way to get the pole.
That set her on the trail to the halfpipe. She joined the Mammoth freeski team around age 11 and by 18 was winning NorAm Cup races.
The sport has been anything but easy on her knees. To keep track of it all, she has made a list:
— Surgery No. 1: December 2013, to fix a torn ACL in her right knee and meniscus. She was training in Mammoth and under-rotated a spin on a jump.
— Surgery No. 2: January 2015, torn ACL in her left knee and meniscus after training for a slopestyle event, which followed a win in a halfpipe contest that same day.
— Surgery No. 3: April 2018, torn right ACL and meniscus again after falling off a rail too early and landing sideways.
— Surgery No. 4: Around March 2019. During the rehab shortly after, torn right meniscus while completing a return-to-snow test. In all, 13 months away.
— Surgeries No. 5 & 6: December 2019 and three months later. She fell on her second run of qualifying at a World Cup in Copper Mountain, Colorado, tearing her right ACL and meniscus for a third time. But before doctors could operate, they first had to go in and fill the holes from where her ACL was attached with cartilage because the holes were too large.
— Surgery No. 7: December 7, 2021. Torn left medial meniscus during a freak training fall. She didn’t think anything of it until she skied off and put weight on it and “knew something was wrong," she said.
The doctor warned it could be a six- to nine-month recovery. If so, China and the Olympics would be out the door.
But her physical therapist gave her a glimmer of hope, suggesting the meniscus could be so shredded, so beyond repair, they might snip the damaged area instead. That would be four to six weeks. If so, the Olympics were still in play.
That's why she glanced down at her knee after surgery — and exhaled.
“From then on, I told myself I would do everything in my power to be able to get back on snow, so that’s what I did,” said Margulies, who wears a brace on her right knee.
A month later, she was back on snow and skiing easy runs. Then a call from the U.S. ski team: Could she be up to speed in time? So out to Copper Mountain she went, to see precisely where she stood.
On that surgically repaired knee — and after skiing just a few days — she was back spinning in the halfpipe and showing she was ready to go.
She chalked it up to the power of positive thinking — with an assist to her sports psychologist. She began visiting one as her knee injuries mounted.
One message resonated: Keep the negative thoughts out.
“She said, ‘Whenever you feel yourself thinking something negatively about your skiing or thinking negatively about your knee injuries, try to push those out completely and fill them with more positive thoughts, so that there’s literally no room for the negative thoughts to come in,’" explained Margulies, who graduated last May from Westminster College with a degree in cognitive psychology. “I thought that was really cool.”
Even cooler: competing in Beijing a mere two months removed from her seventh knee surgery.
“I thought I’d be here one day. But with all my setbacks, I didn’t think it would come,” Margulies said. "It’s here and definitely feels unreal.”
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